Love – not death – is Eternal

Posted by Jenny on Feb 19, 2012 in Snapshot |

I stood amid the crowd of silent mourners in the hot white light of midday.  We watch as the pallbearers carry the dark coffin covered by a massive bunch of red Valentine roses. Slowly the bearers move toward the sleek hearse and gently slide in the coffin.  We watch with barely a rustle as the vehicle – all glass and silver – painstakingly eases past the church complex and slowly drives away.

Just a few days ago I attended the funeral of a valued friend. The tears flowed freely and hearts were moved as her husband, sister, friends and past colleagues gave tributes to a cherished woman’s unquenchable spirit, generous love, and strong faith. She was a loving daughter and sister, a creative and inspirational teacher, a caring friend, a devoted wife, and a dedicated,generous mother with a great heart. At a couple of months short of 47, her life was cut off far too soon. She will be greatly missed not least by her husband of 20 years and three precious children (12, 9 and 5 years of age).

My first memories of Anne Maree – almost a decade ago – was of a smiling, gracious woman who made me and my family feel welcome. Petite, vibrant, with infectious smile and keen blue eyes, she was full of life.  Yet it is over the last two years that her indomitable spirit and unshakable faith really blazed bright. Almost exactly two years ago she was diagnosed with liver cancer.  The medical team only expected her to live six months.  Time and time again she surprised them – enduring chemotherapy with panache and flair, bouncing back from operations with a rapidity that totally astonished her doctors, remaining active and vibrant to the end, insisting on being involved in the day to day care of her children even as her body wasted away to a shadow.  Rallying again and again and again. When most would have given up long ago, she clung to life with an unquenchable spirit not least to snatch a few more precious moments with her family. She had her down times but her faith in the love and power of God remained strong to the very end.  Now,  she is at peace, her battle over – as we who remain come to terms with her death.

Death – it is such a stark word, it does not roll smoothly over the tongue, it jars and shocks us. Yet the longer we live, the less we can avoid it’s dark reality.  I’ve been to more than a few funerals over the years – of friends, family and colleagues – and I have mourned the death of many more.

I think my first funeral was of the father of a close friend.  It was a muted affair in a simple crematorium chapel.  His life was marred by the break down of relationships and a losing battle with the bottle, yet his children gave heartfelt appreciation of his love for them over the years.  Some time after this was the funeral of a fellow bible college student, a beautiful young Maori woman in the middle of her studies.  I can still vividly recall her bubbly personality, her glossy curtain of black hair, dark lively eyes and warm smile.  She had a dynamic faith and a strong calling to missionary work. I remember the evening over coffee when she told me she felt unusually, bone sapping tired, should she be worried? She looked pale. I suggested she see her doctor for tests. A few days later she was diagnosed with Leukaemia – a type that at that time had over 90% chance of cure.  Yet a couple of months later, following chemotherapy, she developed a rampant infection and died. She was just 30 years old. Her grieving family flew over from New Zealand and the church was crowded with fellow students, teachers, friends and family wondering over a promising life cut short.

Lives cut short. Yet even when lives are long, death jars us.  For me, the year that brought this home the most was 2002.  I sometimes joked that this was my year of “five funerals and a wedding” – though it was no joke.  In all, eight people I knew and had significant connections died  (including four family members)- while one close friend married a quiet, gentle man (in January 2003) – a rare joyful celebration in the midst of the bitter sweet and the sad.

The funeral that hit me the hardest that year was that of my youngest brother. He was 35 years old. A life cut short after a losing the battle with depression and despair.  I can remember as a seven year old carrying him on my hip with great love and pride. His baby-blond curls, bight blue eyes and trusting smile won our hearts. My brothers and I doted on him. Always a little eccentric as a child, he grew into a gentle, troubled man – brilliant at maths, a great love for fantasy and science fiction but struggling with the intricacies of social interactions and a hidden past of bullying. He found a mixed haven in the Air Force but left it in the middle of a recession and then struggled to find steady employment. Always gentle, he turned his anger inward spiralling to a place where the love of his family and God seemed cut off from to him. Yet even in the midst of despair God’s love reached out.  I can still vividly remember the piercing, paralyzing sadness that descended like a pall as I listened to my mother voice on the phone, telling me that they had found his body in his newly rented flat. Over the days and months afterwards I remembered the word of the wise woman of Tekoa to King David of Israel “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die.” (2 Samuel 14:14a NIV)  Once the jar of water hits the hard ground and shatters, the water can not be gathered up or put back.  It spreads out in silver flood seeping into the cracks and crevices and evaporating into thin air.  In real life, there is a finality about death.  It disrupts and jars us.

When faced with the starkness and disruption of the death of his close friend Lazarus of Bethany – Jesus wept. His sisters had sent him a message several days ago that their brother was seriously ill but Jesus had delayed his journey from Galilee to Bethany.  The hostility of the religious leaders was at boiling point, so it was dangerous for him to be near Jerusalem (and indeed in a few weeks Jesus would be arrested, tried and killed.) Yet that is not why he delayed. By the time Jesus arrived at the house, his friend had been dead and buried 4 days.  First Lazarus’ sister Martha, then Mary and then the crowd reproached him.  If Jesus had come sooner he surely would have been able to heal Lazarus.  Now he was dead.  The jar of water had smashed to the ground, the point of no return had been reached.  Jesus looked at the tear streaked faces of his dear friends, capable Martha and gentle Mary, he saw the weeping mourners, he thought of his friend’s body decaying in the tomb and he wept at the reality, starkness, the stink of death. Jesus was often moved to compassion by the crowds that milled around him, by the poor, the sick, the outcasts that looked to him for healing and acceptance.  Yet it is  recorded that he wept on only two occasions – when he looked at Jerusalem and foresaw its bloody destruction (which eventuated in AD 70), and when he came to the close friends and family sitting shiva for his friend Lazarus. Death is a stark reality which in the end we all face.  Yet, in the Story of God (the Bible), the sadness and disruption of death is not how things were meant to be, not how things will always be.

As final as death seems, it is part of the Christian faith that it is not the end.  Death will not intimidate and bully us forever.  Even as the tears streamed down his face, Jesus already knew – had known in Galilee – what he was now about to do. “Take away the stone (from the entrance to the grave)” he commands.  Martha, ever practical protests, “He’s been dead four days, Teacher. The smell …!”  But because he insists they do what he directs, pushing the heavy stone from the dark opening of the tomb. “Lazarus come forth” he commands. The incredible happens, a dead decomposing body stands up, is restored to life and personality and walks out of the tomb.  Lazarus has been brought back from the dead to the amazement and disbelief of those who see it with their own eyes and those who hear about it.

Yet, as amazing as this was, it was just an appetizer of what God, in Jesus, has planned. For Lazarus, how many years he may have lived after this event, would eventually die and his body would once more be laid in the grave, a temporary reprieve from the disruption of death.  However, the biblical witnesses claims that though Jesus was brutally murdered on the cross and laid in the tomb for three days – he was raised by the power of God to a new kind of life, a life in which death and decay no longer has a place. A resurrection life which he offers to us, if we but accept it.  As he says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Do you believe this? Of course many, many people are sceptical of these reports and claims.  Possibly you are too.  You might not believe in miracles or a God who intervenes in the course of ordinary life, into nature and history. You may not believe in an after-life. You may be sceptical of the gospel reports of Jesus being raised from the dead or his divine nature. You might doubt the veracity and accuracy of the biblical accounts. I can understand this – though after much investigation, thought and experience, I am convinced that of these things are indeed true.  And not just I, but many others as well.  So I entreat you not to dismiss such things out of hand.

Some five years before the year of funerals and a wedding, we had participated in the funeral of one of our pastors.  Stephanie was a mother of two preteens, a devoted wife and a caring pastor. Even as she underwent cancer treatment, her undying faith, positive spirit, listening ear and empathetic concern for others impacted strongly on her doctors, nurses and fellow patients.  Perhaps what was most moving of all was the audiovisual recording played during her funeral of her sermon on the reality of the resurrection and anticipation of the joy of being in God’s loving presence, which she had given a year previously, just months before the discovery of cancer.

Others too have, in the severest tests of faith, have held on to these things as true. Another friend struck down by cancer in her forties insisted on purple balloons to festively adorn the church  and asked that her strong affirmation of Jesus was the crucial centre point of history be read out at her funeral.  I think of my Aunt Kath who lived to the age of 89. As a young woman she chose singleness so that she could serve Jesus with greater dedication.  To me she was like a second mother and a definitely a strong mentor, the living hub of our extended family, still writing regularly and sending birthday cards not only to siblings and their spouses, not only to numerous nieces and nephews, but to their children and grandchildren. Just a year before her death she sent a small baby doll clothed in a hand knitted pink outfit from my (then) two year old daughter.  She was a quiet friend in need to the people of her church and neighbourhood, a faithful and sacrificial supporter of missions, a knitter of garments and blankets, a great cook of old fashioned goodies with a pantry full of delicious home made jams and preserves and the unstinting provider of a welcoming cup of tea for any and all who would drop in for a visit and a chat. I think of another fellow Bible College student who drowned saving the life of his and another family’s children caught in a treacherous rip in a lake in faraway Pakistan.  In the midst of tragedy, like Anne Marie, theirs was a triumphant living faith not dimmed by the abruptness and disruption of death. I can think of more examples of people all personally known to me with this rugged, tempered faith – men and women; old, middle aged and young; formally educated and/or educated in the school of hard knocks; some having completed the course of this life and many others still running the race.

One of the most famous followers of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus went through incredible hardship following his risen master – beatings, stonings, ship wreck, snake bite, ridicule and slander, sleepless nights, poverty, hunger, imprisonments and finally execution. He writes to the church at Rome toward the end of his life,

“Christ Jesus died for us, but that is not all. He was also raised from death. And now he is at God’s right side, speaking to him for us. Can anything separate us from Christ’s love? Can trouble or problems or persecution separate us from his love? If we have no food or clothes or face danger or even death, will that separate us from his love? …   I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love — not death, life, angels, or ruling spirits. I am sure that nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us or nothing below us — nothing in the whole created world — will ever be able to separate us from the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:34, 35, 38, 39 ERV)

Nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even death because in his resurrection, Jesus defeated death.  Earlier Paul had said to the rather fractious bunch of Jesus followers at Corinth, “Love is eternal … Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8,13 GNT)

Just a couple of days after Valentine’s Day – a brave husband gave a inspiring tribute to the love, courage and faith of his cherished wife – and to God’s unfailingly love.  Among those who listened, tears flowed freely, raining down in grief and loss.  Yet as his words resounded in the packed auditorium, as other voices were lifted in meaning-packed songs and tribute, as luminous photos flashed across the screens our hearts were stirred.  Faith, hope and love took form and began to soar through the rain.

Love – not death – is eternal.

Jenny

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